Pirate Stew & A Study in Emerald (CBR13 #2-3)

Pirate Stew (2020) – 2 stars

Meet Long John McRon, Ship’s Cook the most unusual babysitter you’ve ever seen. Long John has a whole crew of wild pirates in tow, and—for one boy and his sister—he’s about to transform a perfectly ordinary evening into a riotous adventure beneath a pirate moon. It’s time to make some Pirate Stew.

This should be a fun little tale of pirates, flying ships, doughnut feasts and magical stew but it falls flat. For me, the real problem of this book was Neil Gaiman’s rhyming text. It did nothing to hold my intention, and worst sin of all had me thinking of other options for the couplets. It lacked patterns and had a strange rhythm. I think I know what Gaiman was after (pirates are an unruly bunch after all) but it had me itching to skim. The good news? The illustrations by Chris Riddell are very engaging.

A Study in Emerald (2018) = 3 stars

Drawing from both the Sherlock Holmes canon and the Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos, this Hugo Award-winning supernatural mystery set features a detective and his partner as they try to solve a horrific murder. A Study in Emerald draws readers through the complex investigation of the Baker Street investigators from the slums of Whitechapel all the way to the Queen’s Palace as they attempt to find the answers to this bizarre murder of cosmic horror. There are carefully revealed details as the consulting detective and his (unnamed) narrator friend solve the mystery of a murdered German noble.

This graphic novel is aimed to fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft as they are the creators of the source material. This work takes the two worlds and smashes them together, to accomplished but bland effect. Not the fault of the illustrators, who are able to capture the atmosphere of the story in artwork I quite enjoyed, and in the theme of my review of these two Gaiman penned works, the art outpaced the story.

Gaiman does a great job of imitating Doyle’s style, but basically reuses the plot points and details as A Study in Scarlet without much original work. The unnamed narrator’s back story is exactly like Watson’s and is introduced in the same way, some of the major plot points are the same. It falls short on the retelling metric: what’s the point of doing a re-telling if you’re telling the exact same story in very similar words with minor additions from a second body of works. Until the ending, then there’s a switcheroo against expectations and in retrospect you get the retelling component.  It has merit, but it did not work for me.

Not the Girl You Marry (CBR12 #36)

Amazon.com: Not the Girl You Marry eBook: Christopher, Andie J ...

In fulfilling the color squares that form one of the diagonals on the Cannonball Read Bingo Card this year I have decided to go all-in with Romances. They have some of the most vibrant covers in publishing right now, and I’ve got a bunch to choose from. First up, because I feel particularly suited to choosing one at all, is the glorious violet color covered Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher.

I had every hope of this being a book for me, reviews from emmalita and Malin (#BlameMalin) gave every indication that this was something I would enjoy, and I had been holding off until I felt like I could really appreciate it. I ended up ripping into it after a truly awful week in my professional life and needing some emotional salve.

Christopher takes the rom-com How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days and gender swaps it and updates it. Christopher wrote in her Author’s Note that when she sat down to write this book in 2017 she was writing with the express purpose of seeing herself on the page – a biracial woman who had been through the dating wringer – and the type of hero she hopes will enter her own life. Christopher goes on to expound on how being part of the Loving Generation (children of interracial couples who were legally allowed to marry following the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case) impacted her youth and her time in the dating pool. Short version – people suck. Christopher brings that lived experience into her book and takes what could have been a light, frothy retelling and imbues it with real stakes and a place in the world as it exists, not just out there in Romancelandia.

Not the Girl You Marry is the story of Hannah Mayfield and Jack Nolan neither of whom wants to be in a relationship right now, but each with a workplace incentive to be in one. Jack is a a journalist, and his viral success at “How To” articles and videos has pigeon-holed him and kept him covering hard-hitting politics – the beat he would like to be following. With a lead that he thinks can make the change happen that he wants professionally, he strikes a deal with his boss to write a final fluffy bit of clickbait: How to Lose a Girl. Problem is, he’s already met Hannah and is trying to win her over and isn’t sure that he really wants to ruin his chance with her.  Hannah is an extremely successful event planner, focused on climbing the career ladder at her firm which is one of the most prestigious in the city. Determined to secure her next promotion Hannah has to deal with her image problem, she needs to show her boss that she has range, including planning dreaded, romantic weddings. Enter Jack. He’s the perfect man to date for a couple weeks to prove to her boss that she’s not scared of feelings.

Christopher could have gone down a couple different trope avenues with this one, in fact having either character fess up to what was going on and setting them down a fake relationship narrative was what I kept expecting. I’m both sad and relieved that Christopher chose instead to have her leads make the same big mistake – they lied, and they lied until they were caught. She then gives herself a few chapters for them to right their lives and their relationship in a way that was very satisfying. It also felt amazing to have Hannah be difficult and to have that reckoned with. As someone who has decided to wear that label proudly, it was refreshing to see.

The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (CBR11 #63)

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

While I like to think of myself as generally well-read there are definite gaps in the more classic authors of certain genres. Authors I enjoy, including Neil Gaiman, have pointed to Angela Carter as an immense influence on their own work. Thankfully someone had gifted The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories to me a few years ago. The stories in the collection share a theme of being closely based upon fairytales or folk tales and Carter toys with Gothic fiction and gender, utilizing classic Gothic symbolism to push the narrative forward. These short stories emphasize terror and the gruesome, in order to build an atmosphere, while also working to flip certain gendered tropes on their heads. My quick assessment is: sometimes it worked too well and I didn’t care to continue.

A bit of digging around tells me that Carter’s fairy tale retellings are well known for being feminist. And I have to admit that while the stories didn’t always feel modern forty years after their initial publication, that doesn’t mean that Carter wasn’t doing important work that pushes us to work like Her Body & Other Parties. Carter’s feminism is tinged with wanting women to seize what they needed—power, freedom, sex—and seeing no fundamental difference between the sexes that could prevent that. In The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories Carter examines the traditional stories we tell through that lens, but it can mean that her female characters fall flat, or feel a bit one dimensional – she doesn’t allow her heroines much softness or weakness.

I find myself simultaneously running hot and cold with this collection. I appreciate the duality of Carter’s Beauty and the Beast retellings, “The Tiger’s Bride”  and “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, wherein she gives us the original ending where the beast transforms and also a reversal as the heroine transforms into a glorious tiger who is the proper mate to the Beast, who will from now on be true to his own nature and not disguise himself as a human. I can also trace the Gothic symbolism latent in “The Bloody Chamber,” as emphasis is placed on images of the ominous castle, the blood on the key, or a blood-red choker awarded the heroine as a wedding gift foreshadowing the story to come. However, I found the story itself dreadfully boring.

Carter doesn’t seem to have cared much about character development or plot, and instead focuses on emotion and creating images in the reader’s mind. Her technique and craft support her ability to do just that, leave sentences burned on the mind, so while this isn’t for me at the end of the day I was happy to pass it along to another friend whom I think might enjoy it much more.  

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (CBR11 #46)

In setting up the prompts for Cannonball Read’s Sherlock Retellings Book Club I realized one of the parameters I use when deciding if something is a good retelling or remix: a good retelling for its own sake, needs to have enough of the original’s connective tissue without feeling like it’s been made using tracing paper. In the Lady Sherlock series Sherry Thomas split the various characteristics across several characters and I think it worked really well to not have direct analogs for the most part.

Its set in the same historical time-space, but she really broadens the type of characters we see from Arthur Conan Doyle’s. Thomas creates for her readers a female centric worldview, most of our main characters are women, and the machinations surrounding our main mystery and the side ones are also centered on women. Even of male dominated storyline (stupid Inspector Treadles) is focused on his fears surrounding his wife’s own ambitions.

There is plenty of allusions to Doyle’s Holmes – cyphers, lies, Government spies – but the book also suffers from what I don’t think is a Doyle problem: its slow and has at least one too many storylines.  As in A Study in Scarlet Women Thomas uses three voices to tell the story: Charlotte, her sister Livia and Inspector Treadles. While it was always clear which character is delivering the narrative, they didn’t always line up, or feel equally strong. In fact, the storyline surrounding Treadles, which backs up to the main death Charlotte ends up investigating, felt like a serious afterthought. My other problem is that the pace of this novel just died in the second third – there was too much retreading of covered ground and a lack of links to the main narrative.

I do quite enjoy Thomas’s Charlotte Holmes and her cavalcade of Doylesian characters and will continue with the next in the series The Hollow of Fear as I do enjoy a good twisty mystery, even if the twists aren’t always entirely earned.

Jane Steele (CBR11 #12)

I am a big fan of Lyndsay Faye, but I couldn’t really pick up her 2016 work Jane Steele until now because I had not read Jane Eyre until late last year. While I’m sure you could read Jane Steele without reading Jane Eyre, I don’t know if you’d really see all that Faye is accomplishing in this work if you did. For that reason alone, I’m glad I waited. I love a quality retelling and Faye is absolutely delivering on that front. Jane Steele borrows the form and style of its predecessor and tells another story of a young woman attempting a life of her own, on her own terms.

While in Jane Eyre we see Jane become an individual and stand up for herself as a person worthy of whatever agency and independence she can carve out for herself, the Jane of Jane Steele is already confident and independent, but still fighting a sense of her own impending doom. Jane Steele is convinced from an early age that the only way to see her dead mother again is to commit a sin so great as to end up in Hell, and knowing herself capable of murder, she leans into this new persona. As her life progresses from child, to teenager, and onto early adulthood Jane falls back onto this skill set whenever a danger presents itself. This only covers the beginning third to half of the book, once Mr. Thornfield arrives in the book broadens its scope.

There is no woman locked in the attic in this book. The subtext of passion and sexuality in Jane Eyre become text in Jane Steele. The dearth of agency and independence that was possible and probable in the mid-1800s is still rife for discussion. This books is just flat out GOOD and I am having trouble finding the words to say exactly how good it is, so I’m going to stop trying after nearly two weeks of fighting with this review and just implore you to read the book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Across a Star-Swept Sea (CBR7 #42)

For whatever reason, I always feel the need to explain in my reviews how I came to read the book I’m reviewing. I think it helps center me before I jump into the analysis (if I manage to get to the analysis and not just the summary). This one is easy… I blame the Cannonball Read. Based on gushing reviews of Diana Peterfreund’s series I picked up For Darkness Shows the Stars and then read the short stories, which should each be read before their matching books in order to facilitate world building.

Across a Star-Swept Sea is a companion novel to For Darkness Shows the Stars. FDStS is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and Across a Star-Swept Sea is a retelling of the Scarlet Pimpernel. A gender switched retelling of the Scarlet Pimpernel at that! Everything should be great… but it wasn’t.  It was good, not great. The retelling itself was fun and generally well written, and the world Peterfreund is playing in is interesting, but the novel just never really hit for me. The story never sang.

There are two storylines happening at once in the book.  Sharing a universe with FDStS, the Earth has been decimated by the Reduction, but in New Pacifica (two neighboring islands, Albion and Galatea), Reduction has been cured. The citizens of New Pacifica haven’t seen a natural-born reduced in two generations. But a new evil has been created — a “reduction” pill to use as punishment against those who speak out against the leaders of Galatea, who are in the midst of a revolution. The wealthy “aristos” are warring against the “regs”, and these pink reduction pills are being used on anyone who dares to commit treason. The Wild Poppy, our main protagonist Persis, is fighting to save the victims of this terrible crime.

The second plot focuses on Persis’ home island of Albion. Where the current princess, Persis’ best friend Isla, is simply a placeholder until her toddler brother comes of age. She’s gets little respect from her advisors and is insulted to her face constantly about her inability to rule. You see, over on Albion only men have power.  Coming from that culture not only is the identity of The Wild Poppy a secret that very few know — but most assume that the spy is a brave, strong man.

There was so much that was good. SO MUCH that it feels almost scandalous to be rating this book a 3.5 and rounding down to 3. But… while Persis Blake as a strong female protagonist who is heroic because she looks at a situation and thinks “What can I do to help?” instead of “someone should really do something about that” and Peterfreund is blatantly feminist in the way she brings various viewpoints to the table and says “why not the girls and women? Why can’t they run the world?” there was still something missing, some undefinable quality that left me wanting. And I feel bad! I should love an adventure story where the movers and shakers are ladies! I should be excited that the love story is VERY secondary (it’s probably the tertiary plot) and that the boy in question, Justen Helo – grandson of the creator of the Cure that ended the Reduction, has plot motivations all his own and isn’t just window dressing. But… I’m just not in love. Perhaps a little tighter editing in the middle of the book would have helped keep me bounding along with the story, but we’ll never know.

However, I do suggest you read these books (Among the Nameless Stars, For Darkness Shows the Stars, The First Star to Fall, then Across the Star-Swept Sea) because they really are really good. I want there to be another full novel. I went searching the internet this morning to see if there was a third one planned. There’s still so much story to tell! And maybe that’s part of the problem I have with rounding this one up, I was left wanting more in the bad way, not the good way and that’s no fun after 450 pages.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.